Archive for April, 2014

Letting Yourself Lead

I recently had a coaching conversation with a newly promoted leader who was feeling frustrated. Her team was not performing to the degree that she thought needed, and she constantly felt like she had to step in and take the reins in order to keep project meetings on track and the projects themselves headed for success. By the end of each day, it seemed she had little time to work at her own job, often finding she had to stay late to answer emails and follow up on her commitments. Her energy was spent and the frustration with her team depleted much of the joy she had for her job.

I asked her a question that encouraged her to step back and reflect a bit:  “What do you want?” She thought about it for a minute and then answered: “I want my team to do what I want them to do!”

Now we really had something to explore.

Many times new leaders (and, at times, seasoned leaders, as well) get securely attached to their own ways of performing a job; their way is the right way because, as their personal experience demonstrates, it’s those very skills and techniques that got them into the position they now hold; it’s because they did a great job.

But here’s where leaders might get derailed. If they hold fast to what they know best, their expertise, they squander the opportunity to truly lead.

Rooke and Torbert (2005) suggest that great leaders are not differentiated by their personality or management style, but rather their “action logics”—how they react (or act) when they step (or are pulled) out of their comfort zone. People, according to the model, fall into one of seven of these action logics, which include such groupings as achievers, experts, diplomats, strategists, and individualists. When we allow ourselves to step back, reflect, consider others’ perspectives or ways of doing a task, we ourselves grow to be more inclusive and relational in our leadership capacity. And, by doing so, we can also transform how our organization develops across teams by modeling the same behaviors and, by extension, enriching the environment for others to also develop.

Rooke and Torbert (2005) further suggest that most of our working population rests within the action logic stage of “expert”—actually 38% of the working population—someone who may be well-suited as an individual contributor due to his or her technical expertise and, possibly, less suited to be the developmental leader needed to grow others.

Here’s the opportunity.

When leaders are willing to practice new habits of letting go, and allow their team members to try new things (and, perhaps, perform tasks that might not map directly to what they would have done), amazing and wonderful things happen – for both the leader and the team.  In Rooke and Torbert’s (2005) “action logic” language, this behavior demonstrates a later stage of development called the “achiever” stage (30% of the population), which occurs when a leader expands her capacity to focus on team development and team goals, rather than on personal expertise and personal goals. As you might imagine, as adults expand their capacity to let go, step back, and enable others to take more responsibility, make more independent decisions, and deepen their capacity to “lead in place” (Wergin, 2007), this leadership growing pattern becomes more challenging; leaders must be able to enter into the unknown and trust others’ capacity to lead. This leadership development process enables teams the opportunity to step up and take the lead on projects, and to learn from both their successes and mistakes. The leader, in turn, gets to learn new ways of doing tasks and, by extension of the willingness to let go, deepens the loyalty and trust across the team.

My client decided to give it a go to let go and see what would happen. She decided to let herself lead. What she noticed was enlightening!  Her relationships with her team members became richer, their creativity soared, and they began to make decisions independently. She then gained more time to work on her own tasks, thinking and planning strategically (and was able to answer her emails in time to get home to her family at a reasonable hour). She grew as a leader and gained the respect of upper management as her team achieved results that exceeded expectations.

A simple shift of thinking can make all the difference as we commit to growing ourselves as leaders and growing our teams. Letting go of what we know and letting ourselves lead can be that simple shift.


Rooke, D., & Torbert, W. R. (2005). 7 transformations of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 83(4), 66-76.

Wergin, J. F. (2007). Leadership in place: How academic professionals can find their leadership voice. Bolton, Mass: Anker Pub. Co.


Planting When the Time is Right

A good friend of mine grew up on a family farm in Minnesota and, over the years, I have enjoyed hearing stories of a childhood that included planting and harvesting crops, and caring for livestock. I’ve enjoyed a bit of planting myself in year’s past—garden vegetables, and herbs now and then, but growing up in a suburban/light-industrial neighborhood pales against the stories of tractors and baling that my friend relates. There is one similarity, however, that spans both my world and hers: readiness.

Just a few days ago the morning’s news showered us once again with images of falling snow–eighteen inches in places like Minnesota. It’s April and most farmers are preparing for their spring planting which, by all accounts, should be right around the corner. But not this year. The ground isn’t ready. Wet fields and low ground temperatures will likely keep seeds out of the soil for another several weeks. This is frustrating, of course (or, as I like to think of it, an “opportunity for patience”). There is other work to do on the farm, after all: repairing and preparing equipment, for example. Still, planting is the most anticipated spring ritual; it sets the stage for the upcoming growing and harvesting season and controls the economic cycles of our family farmers. But you can’t help it if things just aren’t ready.

Farming and planting are good metaphors for coaching. We, as coaches, oftentimes plan a process that will guide the engagement. The process I typically follow covers these steps:

  1. Assessing the client’s situation
  2. Setting specific goals based on the assessment
  3. Designing an action plan for practicing new behaviors or skills
  4. Implementing the action plan
  5. Evaluating the results

These steps set into play a cyclical routine of assessing to be sure that we are on track with what is working, and to see what we might want to change. This sounds all well and fine on paper, but as I’ve mentioned before, humans and organizations can be messy; we don’t always fall into a neat and process-happy routine.

Coaching calls for a partnership in observation, care, listening, and noticing, along with the capacity to meet the client “where they are.” This, like the soil that awaits the seeds for planting, is not always timed just perfectly; where they are might call for us to stop, explore different options, and prepare for an alternate plan. Coaching often unveils inner struggles that may need to be addressed before moving into action.  Just like when the farmer takes a step in another direction during what would be her planting season, needing to refocus on different activities for a while, a coach and a client sometimes take a step in another direction to focus on what’s most important in the moment. The coaching client’s soil may not be ready for planting, just yet, and such adjustments improve the readiness for future work.

Meeting the coaching client “where they are” is, in my opinion, the most important value that a coach can bring to the relationship. The thought-partnership that is the coaching engagement is one of readiness—for the coach as well as the client. The client’s growth will happen in due time, when he or she is ready and able to see what’s true for them. It is then and only then, that their insights will break through and take root.